Taking my brand-new Sube card out of my bag, I briefly wondered which of the two main Argentinian heritages would prevail when it comes to the state-owned train services. Did the trenes argentinos run Italian-style—“The 9:18 train will leave at… at one point…”? Or would I enjoy some Teutonic efficiency in South America—“the 9:00 a.m. train will depart between 9:00:01 and 9:00:59, offensichtlich”?
And then, an employee standing by the turnstile told me not to swipe my card—the ride was free because the train was currently stuck at the station.
“Not again!” the woman behind me complained.
“Accident?” someone else wondered.
In France, in “train speak,” suicides are euphemistically called accidents de personne.
But apparently, in Argentina, there’s no such thing as euphemisms. Passengers do deserve and get a full explanation.
“Yeah, dead guy on the tracks between Núñez and Rivadavia,” the employee went on. “We’re waiting for the police to give us the green light, but it might take a while because the paramedics are cleaning up the mess and—”
I walked away, fearing a very graphic description of the accident that I could picture well enough even though I didn’t want to.
I was already on my way to a harrowing place.
I boarded the train, waited, almost fell asleep, checked my watch and realized it was getting late and that I was going nowhere.
The mission would have to be postponed to the following day. Sure, I was only one station away, but the far suburb of Buenos Aires wasn’t on the map and if I followed the train tracks, I may stumble upon the accident scene, which was best avoided. Besides, it was 45⁰C, way too hot to wander around in a neighbourhood I didn’t know.
More importantly, I didn’t want to rush through the Espacio para la Memoria y para la Promoción y Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, the former educational facility of the Argentine Navy used as a clandestine detention centre during the Dirty War. Such place deserved time and apparently, the complex was huge.
I got off the train and walked through Núñez, a pleasant northern suburb of Buenos Aires, until I found the end of the subway line.
The next day, I was better prepared. I took the train at Retiro, the main station. It was twenty minutes late and it would have been faster to walk between the first two stations considering how slow it was at first—really slow, I’m not speaking as spoiled French used to the TGV!—but I eventually made it to Estación Rivadavia, in front of the Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (“ESMA,” Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy).
As I had suspected, the complex was huge, taking almost six blocks on Avenida del Libertador.
During the military dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983, about 30,000 Argentinians were “disappeared” by the state, i.e. kidnapped and taken to secret detention centres where they were tortured. Few made it out of these centres alive—prisoners were either shot or taken for a vuelo de la muerte (“death flight,” thrown alive into the Río de la Plata from a plane).
Almost 5,000 people were abducted and held in the ESMA, the largest detention centre of its kind. All but 150 were killed during or after interrogation and torture.
These prisoners are called the “desaparecidos,” because to their relatives, they were “missing”—no information was given. Las madres de la Plaza de Mayo (“The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo”) were the first to challenge the military government and marched regularly around the famous public square to demand information about their missing children. They are still holding weekly vigils and they never gave up the fight.
Today, the former detention centre houses a museum but also offices helping those looking for their real identity or families looking for a “disappeared” relative. Babies born in captivity to left-wing prisoners were kidnapped and given for adoption to friends of the regime or military families. These children, who are now in their thirties or forties, may not know anything about their true identity.
Many parts and features of the complex were preserved, but now it’s home to hope instead of fear, dehumanization and crímenes de lesa humanidad (crimes against humanity). There’s a museum, a cultural centre, the Secretary for Human Rights and many associations such as Casa por la identidad (managed by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) fighting for human rights or for the “desaparecidos.”
Few tourists make it to the ESMA—it’s far and not exactly promoted by the tourism commission. Yet, the complex was far from being empty, there were plenty of people at work in the various buildings.
It was both weird and relieving to see them coming and going, smoking a cigarette outside the former dormitories or making a quick cup of coffee in a building that used to house the military officers responsible for torturing prisoners—times change, and it’s good.